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John Wyclif's Bible (ed.1395)

Middle English Versions before Wyclif

The Norman Conquest checked for a time all the vernacular literature of England, including the translations of the Bible. One of the first signs of its revival was the production of the Ormulum, a poem which embodies metrical versions of the Gospels and Acts, written about the end of the twelfth century. The main biblical literature of this period, however, was French. For the benefit of the Norman settlers in England, translations of the greater part of both Old Testament and New Testament were produced during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Especially notable among these was the version of the Apocalypse, because it was frequently accompanied by a series of illustrations, the best examples of which are the finest (and also the most quaint) artistic productions of the period in the sphere of book-illustration. Nearly 90 manuscripts of this version are known, ranging from the first half of the twelfth century to the first half of the fifteenth [see P. Berger, La Bible Francaise au moyen age, p. 78 ff.; L. Delisle and P. Meyer, L'Apocalypse en Francais (Paris, 1901); and New Paleographical Society, part 2, plates 38, 39], some having been produced in England, and others in France; and in the fourteenth century it reappears in an English dress, having been translated apparently about that time. This English version (which at one time was attributed to Wyclif) is known in no less than 16 manuscripts, which fall into at least two classes [see Miss A.C. Paues, A Fourteenth Century English Biblical Version (Cambridge, 1902), pp. 24-30]; and it is noteworthy that from the second of these was derived the version which appears in the revised Wyclifite Bible, to be mentioned presently.

The fourteenth century, which saw the practical extinction of the general use of the French language in England, and the rise of a real vernacular literature, saw also a great revival of vernacular Biblical literature, beginning apparently with the Book of Psalms. Two English versions of the Psalter were produced at this period, one of which enjoyed great popularity. This was the work of Richard Rolle, hermit of Hampole, in Yorkshire (d.1349). It contains the Latin text of the Psalter, followed verse by verse by an English translation and commentary. Originally written in the northern dialect, it soon spread over all England, and many manuscripts of it still exist in which the dialect has been altered to suit southern tastes. Towards the end of the century Rolle's work suffered further change, the commentary being re-written from a strongly Lollard point of view, and in this shape it continued to circulate far into the sixteenth century. Another version of the Psalter was produced contemporaneously with Rolle's, somewhere in the West Midlands. The authorship of it was formerly attributed to William of Shoreham, vicar of Chart Sutton, in Kent, but for no other reason than that in one of the two manuscripts in which it is preserved (Brit. Mus. Add. MS 17376), the other being at Trinity College, Dublin) it is now bound up with his religious poems. The dialect, however, proves that this authorship is impossible, and the version must be put down as anonymous. As in the case of Rolle's translation, the Latin and English texts are intermixed, verse by verse; but there is no commentary. [See K.S. Bulbring, The Earliest Complete English Prose Psalter (Early English Text Society), 1891).]

The Psalter was not the only part of the Bible of which versions came into existence in the course of the fourteenth century. At Magdalene College, Cambridge (Pepys MS 2498), is an English narrative of the life of Christ, compiled out of a re-arrangement of the Gospels for Sundays and holy days throughout the year. Quite recently, too, a group of manuscripts, which (so far as they were known at all) had been regarded as belonging to the Wyclifite Bible, has been shown by Miss Anna C. Paues [A Fourteenth Century English Biblical Version (Cambridge, 1902)] to contain an independent translation of the New Testament. It is not complete, the Gospels being represented only by Matthew 1:1 to 6:8, and the Apocalypse being altogether omitted. The original nucleus seems, indeed, to have consisted of the four larger Catholic Epistles and the Epistles of St. Paul, to which were subsequently added 2 and 3 John, Jude, Acts, and Matthew 1:1-6:8. Four manuscripts of this version are at present known, the oldest being one at Selwyn College, Cambridge, which was written about 1400. The prologue narrates that the translation was made at the request of a monk and a nun by their superior, who defers to their earnest desire, although, as he says, it is at the risk of his life. This phrase seems to show that the work was produced after the rise of the great party controversy which is associated with the name of Wyclif.

Wyclif's Bible

With Wyclif (1320-1384) we reach a landmark in the history of the English Bible, in the production of the first complete version of both Old Testament and New Testament. It belongs to the last period of Wyclif's life, that in which he was engaged in open war with the Papacy and with most of the official chiefs of the English Church. It was connected with his institution of "poor priests," or mission preachers, and formed part of his scheme of appealing to the populace in general against the doctrines and supremacy of Rome. The New Testament seems to have been completed about 1380, the Old Testament between 1382 and 1384. Exactly how much of it was done by Wyclif's own hand is uncertain. The greater part of the Old Testament (as far as Baruch 3:20) is assigned in an Oxford manuscript to Nicholas Hereford, one of Wyclif's principal supporters at that university; and it is certain that this part of the translation is in a different style (more stiff and pedantic) from the rest. The New Testament is generally attributed to Wyclif himself, and he may also have completed the Old Testament, which Hereford apparently had to abandon abruptly, perhaps when he was summoned to London and excommunicated in 1382. This part of the work is free and vigorous in style, though its interpretation of the original is often strange, and many sentences in it can have conveyed very little idea of their meaning to its readers. Such as it was, however, it was a complete English Bible, addressed to the whole English people, high and low, rich and poor. That this is the case is proved by the character of the copies which have survived (about 30 in number). Some are large folio volumes, handsomely written and illuminated in the best, or nearly the best, style of the period; such is the fine copy, in two volumes (now Brit. Mus. Egerton MSS 617, 618), which once belonged to Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, uncle of Richard II. Others are plain copies of ordinary size, intended for private persons or monastic libraries; for it is clear that, in spite of official disfavor and eventual prohibition, there were many places in England where Wyclif and his Bible were welcomed. Wyclif, indeed, enjoyed advantages from personal repute and influential support such as had been enjoyed by no English translator since Alfred. An Oxford scholar, at one time Master of Balliol, holder of livings successively from his college and the Crown, employed officially on behalf of his country in controversy with the Pope, the friend and protege of John of Gaunt and other prominent nobles, and enjoying as a rule the strenuous support of the University of Oxford, Wyclif was in all respects a person of weight and influence in the realm, who could not be silenced or isolated by the opposition of bishops such as Arundel. The work that he had done had struck its roots too deep to be destroyed, and though it was identified with Lollardism by its adversaries, its range was much wider than that of any one sect or party.

Wyclif's translation, however, though too strong to be overthrown by its opponents, was capable of improvement by its friends. The difference of style between Hereford and his continuator or continuators, the stiff and unpopular character of the work of the former, and the imperfections inevitable in a first attempt on so large a scale, called aloud for revision; and a second Wyclifite Bible, the result of a very complete revision of its predecessor, saw the light not many years after the reformer's death. The authorship of the second version is doubtful. It was assigned by Forshall and Madden, the editors of the Wyclifite Bible, to John Purvey, one of Wyclif's most intimate followers; but the evidence is purely circumstantial, and rests mainly on verbal resemblances between the translator's preface and known works of Purvey, together with the fact that a copy of this preface is found attached to a copy of the earlier version which was once Purvey's property. What is certain is that the second version is based upon the first, and that the translator's preface is permeated with Wyclifite opinions. This version speedily superseded the other, and in spite of a decree passed, at Arundel's instigation, by the council of Blackfriars in 1408, it must have circulated in large numbers. Over 140 copies are still in existence, many of them small pocket volumes such as must have been the personal property of private individuals for their own study. Others belonged to the greatest personages in the land, and copies are still in existence which formerly had for owners Henry VI, Henry VII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth.

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With the production of the second Wyclifite version the history of the manuscript English Bible comes to an end. Purvey's work was on the level of the best scholarship and textual knowledge of the age, and it satisfied the requirements of those who needed a vernacular Bible. That it did not reach modern standards in these respects goes without saying. In the first place, it was translated from the Latin Vulgate, not from the original Hebrew and Greek, with which there is no reason to suppose that Wyclif or his assistants were familiar. Secondly, its exegesis is often deficient, and some passages in it must have been wholly unintelligible to its readers. This however, may be said even of some parts of the AV, so that it is small reproach to Wyclif and Purvey; and on the whole it is a straightforward and intelligible version of the Scriptures. A few examples of this, the first complete English Bible, and the first version in which the English approaches sufficiently near to its modern form to be generally intelligible, may be given here.

John 14:1-7.  Be not youre herte affraied, ne drede it. Ye bileuen in god, and bileue ye in me. In the hous of my fadir ben many dwellyngis: if ony thing lasse I hadde seid to you, for I go to make redi to you a place. And if I go and make redi to you a place, eftsone I come and I schal take you to my silf, that where I am, ye be. And whidir I go ye witen: and ye witen the wey. Thomas seith to him, Lord, we witen not whidir thou goist, and hou moun we wite the weie. Ihesus seith to him, I am weye truthe and liif: no man cometh to the fadir, but bi me. If ye hadden knowe me, sothli ye hadden knowe also my fadir: and aftirwarde ye schuln knowe him, and ye han seen hym.

2 Cor. 1:17-20.  But whanne I wolde this thing, whether I uside unstidfastnesse? ether tho thingis that I thenke, I thenke aftir the fleische, that at me be it is and it is not. But god is trewe, for oure word that was at you, is and is not, is not thereinne, but is in it. Forwhi ihesus crist the sone of god, which is prechid among you bi us, bi me and siluan and tymothe, ther was not in hym is and is not, but is was in hym. Forwhi hou many euer ben biheestis of god, in thilke is ben fulfillid. And therfor and bi him we seien Amen to god, to oure glorie.

Ephesians 3:14-21.  For grace of this thing I bowe my knees to the fadir of oure lord ihesus crist, of whom eche fadirheed in heuenes and in erthe is named, that he geue to you aftir the richessis of his glorie, vertu to be strengthid bi his spirit in the ynner man; that criste dwelle bi feith in youre hertis; that ye rootid and groundid in charite, moun comprehende with alle seyntis whiche is the breede and the lengthe and the highist and the depnesse; also to wite the charite of crist more excellent thanne science, that ye be fillid in all the plente of god. And to hym that is myghti to do alle thingis more plenteuousli thanne we axen, or undirstande bi the vertu that worchith in us, to hym be glorie in the chirche and in crist ihesus in to alle the generaciouns of the worldis. Amen.

The English manuscript Bible was now complete, and no further translation was issued in this form. The Lollard controversy died down amid the strain of the French wars and the passions of the wars of the Roses; and when, in the sixteenth century, religious questions once more came to the front, the situation had been fundamentally changed through the invention of printing. The first book that issued from the press was the Latin Bible (popularly known as the Mazarin Bible), published by Fust and Gutenberg in 1456. For the Latin Bible (the form in which the Scriptures had hitherto been mainly known in Western Europe) there was indeed so great a demand, that no less than 124 editions of it are said to have been issued before the end of the fifteenth century; but it was only slowly that scholars realized the importance of utilizing the printing press for the circulation of the Scriptures, either in their original tongues, or in the vernaculars of Europe. The Hebrew Psalter was printed in 1477, the complete Old Testament in 1488. The Greek Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, was included in the great Complutensian Polyglot of Cardinal Ximenes, printed in 1514-17, but not published till 1522. The Greek New Testament (edited by Erasmus) was first published by Froben in 1516, the Old Testament by the Aldine press in 1518. In the way of vernacular versions, a French Bible was printed at Lyons about 1478, and another about 1487; a Spanish Pentateuch was printed (by Jews) in 1497; a German Bible was printed at Strassburg by Mentelin in 1466, and was followed by eighteen others (besides many Psalters and other separate books) between that date and 1522, when the first portion of Luther's translation appeared. In England, Caxton inserted the main part of the Old Testament narrative in his translation of the Golden Legend (which in its original form already contained the Gospel story), published in 1483; but no regular English version of the Bible was printed until 1525, with which date a new chapter in the history of the English Bible begins.

Sir Frederic G. Kenyon in the Dictionary of the Bible edited by James Hastings, and published by Charles Scribner's Sons of New York in 1909.

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